clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A fried chicken sandwich at Locol
A fried chicken sandwich at Locol
Audrey Ma/Locol

Filed under:

The Perils of Being the People’s Critic

What happens when traditional restaurant criticism meets a revolutionary restaurant

At the beginning of 2016, Pete Wells, the New York Times dining critic, was not just the most important restaurant reviewer in America, he was a "populist hero." In his January 13 column, he had demoted from four stars to two perhaps the most gilded fine dining establishment in New York City, Thomas Keller's Per Se, by way of a spectacularly eviscerating review that at least one third-party headline claimed "changed fine dining forever."

Now, a year later, Wells is being pilloried for being a "fucking jerk." After awarding zero stars to the Oakland, California location of Locol — the community-minded fast-food chainlet from chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, which many in the food media have hailed as the most important dining establishment of 2016 (oh, hello) — a consensus has emerged that he pulled "a completely dick-ish and unnecessary move," with readers sarcastically suggesting he "take on soup kitchens next." Where there is not outright anger, there is bafflement: Why would Pete Wells, populist hero and New York-based restaurant critic, use his vast influence, limited column space, and precious allotment of goose eggs to, effectively, punish a west-coast restaurant-cum-social endeavor whose stated mission is to serve healthier fast food and provide jobs almost exclusively in neglected communities across the country?

The answer is, in some ways, remarkably simple. I spoke to Wells by phone on Wednesday, the day his Locol review appeared in print, and he told me that out of the multiple restaurants he visited during a recent stay in Oakland, he had chosen to visit Locol — and to review it — because "it was the most talked-about restaurant of the year." And yet, he had noticed that for all of the talking, relatively little was said about the execution of the actual food. He's not wrong — coverage of the chain has yielded countless news reports and features, largely focused on its desire to be an oasis of nutrition in food deserts and to provide steady jobs in communities where opportunities are too few. There are far fewer formal reviews. (Especially of Locol’s first location in the South LA neighborhood Watts, which Wells has not visited.)

Wells's explanation, much like the review itself, may be unsatisfying to some (or to many), but it is wholly consistent with the critical approach that he has taken during his five-year tenure as the Times dining critic. In countless interviews and social media posts, Wells has taken great pains to explain that, contrary to the popular stereotype of the gleefully cruel restaurant critic, he does not gut venues' prospects happily, that for him a zero-star review comes with "an awful lot of hair-pulling." After the Per Se review, he explained to Slate, "If I do schlock, it’s because I think it’s interesting schlock. I don’t have to do that. There are too many restaurants here." He elaborated on this point in a recent profile in the New Yorker:

As Wells has come to see it, a disastrous restaurant is newsworthy only if it has a pedigree or commercial might; the mom-and-pop catastrophe can be overlooked. "I shouldn’t be having to explain to people what the place is," he said. This reasoning seems civil, though, as Wells acknowledged, it means that his pans focus disproportionately on restaurants that have corporate siblings. Indeed, hype is often his direct or indirect subject. Of the fifteen no-star evaluations in his first four years, only two went to restaurants that weren’t part of a group of restaurants.

In other words, Wells only drops the hammer on restaurants if he thinks they're noteworthy enough to be crushed — or if he believes there is a point to be made. For instance, in one of those two reviews of independent restaurants, a dismissal of the East Village pizzeria Bruno, Wells is prosecuting as much of a case against the breathless food media coverage that brought it to prominence, as he is against the restaurant and its cooking:

I don’t want to convict the restaurant’s chefs and owner for these problems because the real killer, as O. J. Simpson would say, is other people. ... More accurately, it’s a small group of people like me whose approval can lift some restaurants from the teeming primordial swamp of contenders, and whose premature praise and willingness to play down discomfort and inconvenience enable problems like Bruno’s.

This disconnect between hype and execution is a running theme in his review of Locol, where Wells's disappointment in the food is contextualized by his praise for its founding chefs' work at their day-job restaurants, and his appreciation for the scope of Choi and Patterson's dreams for the chain. (Choi in particular has had outwardly messianic ambitions of late, hoping to reach people on "an MLK or Gandhi or Oprah level" and promising a "revolution.") Given the stature of its chefs, the dizzying height of its aspirations, and how relentlessly it was covered by the media, it's little surprise that Locol was an attractive subject for Wells, or that, finding its food lacking, he decided to excoriate it.

But still, why zero stars? How the Times awards its stars has long been a fraught subject, certainly since the early ‘90s, when former Times critic Ruth Reichl, in the words of her predecessor Bryan Miller, "DESTROYED THE SYSTEM" by awarding two- and three-star ratings to "SoHo noodle shops." (How populist!) In Wells's view, as he concisely explained to the New Yorker’s Ian Parker, the star system ought to be used to measure how close restaurants of any sort come "to being the best possible version of themselves."

This standard requires, on the part of Wells, a subjective determination of what the best possible version of a given restaurant is. His apparent vision for Locol, built in part on the promises of Choi and Patterson about Locol as a restaurant, is one of a chain whose food is as satisfying as standard fast food, if not more so, while being healthier and more conscientiously produced. Perhaps a more ethical Shake Shack (a chain which received one star from Wells, despite its struggles with inconsistency), or a more accessible Superiority Burger (a vegetarian burger chain from another chef with a fine dining pedigree, which received two stars for its wild, experimental streak).

The Locol review largely attempts to situate that vision of the chain and then evaluate the Oakland outlet against it. To Wells, the particular restaurant he visited should serve as an interchangeable unit in a nascent fast-food empire from high-caliber chefs — albeit an interchangeable unit that happens to be specifically surrounded by bourgeois restaurants whose presence undermines much of Locol's stated purpose of serving under-served communities, such as a shop that sells cronut knockoffs, and an Umami Burger.

Taken in this context, it's plain that the Locol review is, from a critical perspective, ultimately of a piece with Wells’s infamous reviews of Per Se, or of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar. "If Locol were a nonprofit, then institutional-quality cooking might be unavoidable," he writes. "It is a restaurant, though, and it is run by two chefs who are famous for cooking food that people really, really want to eat. I had a hard time remembering that as I worked my way through Locol’s menu, where appeals to your appetite are about as scarce as chicken in the no-noodle soup... The most nutritious burger on earth won’t help you if you don’t want to eat it." Wells thinks that Locol’s customers are getting a raw (or dry, or mushy, or just plain unappetizing) deal.

Unlike Wells’s other high-profile targets — rarefied fine-dining temples and a TV star's Times Square money grab — it is impossible to extricate Locol’s food from the restaurant’s broader goals and social context. Wells may have hoped to do so, or at least place it within a specific critical framework, by evaluating this location instead of the original restaurant in Watts; the community in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, increasingly white and affluent, isn't as transparently in need of what Locol promises, which might free a visitor to the restaurant from more immediate reminders of the urgency of the chain’s mission.

But Locol is not merely an endeavor to provide healthier food and well-paying jobs to institutionally oppressed neighborhoods; it is an endeavor whose target audience, by design, has minimal overlap with Wells' core New York Times readership. (Which, while it might span the socioeconomic spectrum, is overwhelmingly affluent.) Choi and Patterson have vociferously pushed back against the same mainstream-food-media adulation that drew Wells to the restaurant in the first place, stating over and over again that their priority is not Instagram-oriented food influencers with disposable income. Put another way, as Oakland chef Preeti Mistry tweeted at Wells, "They didn’t build it for NYT resto reviews."

"It’s not for the critics" is a common defense when a restaurateur doesn’t like a review of their restaurant — or in Hollywood, when a critic trashes a billion-dollar blockbuster like Transformers 16: The Lost Age of the Second Blood Moon. But consider: What does it mean for the restaurant critic of the New York Times — whose province is largely telling the rich, or at least the aspirational, where to eat and where to be seen eating — to evaluate a restaurant aimed at poor and working class neighborhoods, 3,000 miles outside the city limits of the town he normally covers? Who is that critic evaluating it for?

This is a thornier question still when one considers the expansion model for Locol. Choi, Patterson, and their business partner, Hanson Li, have said that they plan to partner with local investors in each neighborhood, like Aqeela Sherrills, a community safety organizer who invested in the Watts location, and to collaborate with those communities on each location’s menu. A few months ago, when I visited the Watts Locol, whose employees come almost exclusively from the neighborhood, the menu listed the basics, but also had an expansive catalog of employee-developed dishes, from milkshakes to burritos. (This is also where I might note that an informal poll of Eater editors yielded universally positive responses about the food at Locol, especially for the Watts location, which has several months of operation on the newer Oakland outpost.)

Casting a critical eye on an institution from two high-profile chefs might seem the very definition of "punching up," but any claim the Times might have to that is largely undermined by the column’s tone, which, even in its praise, can read as conspicuously callous: "Watts had reason to celebrate. New restaurants don’t turn up every day, let alone ones whose owners promise to make the neighborhood a better place. Competition is stiffer along Broadway in the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland." And if that's not enough: "I don’t know of any other fast-food chain that has put street culture at the heart of its locations in this way. The closest most of them come to design that reflects the surroundings is a wall of bulletproof glass."

Wells may have been targeting Choi and Patterson, but the sharp edge of a review like this inflicts damage beyond just the two famous faces of the chain. Much of the "populist schadenfreude" that fed the approving frenzy around Wells's Per Se review (and what little backlash there was to his review of Guy Fieri's donkey-sauce-splattered Times Square mess hall) was driven by the fact that restaurant reviews are read, at least implicitly, as judgments not just of the restaurants, but of the people who choose to go there. Revealing the hollowness of Per Se doubled as a reveal of the hollowness of its oligarchic patrons — what does it mean for a critic to invalidate a restaurant whose intended patrons are communities of poor and working class people, and whose goal, as an enterprise, is social justice? As Los Angeles magazine’s Lesley Suter asked, "Wells probably steered a few folks away from a mediocre bowl of chicken soup and a dry chicken patty, but at what price?"

The representational politics of both Locol and its coverage are complicated: A white chef and a Korean-American chef plan to take their vision of better food for the poor and working class into neglected neighborhoods across the country — neighborhoods that are, for the most part, historically black, while the mainstream food media covering it is, by and large, extremely white. (Hello again!) Where this leads may be uncomfortable for the restaurant criticism establishment, which primarily values its own ability to (more or less) impartially render objective verdicts on whether any burger in any restaurant really is worth those six dollars.

What Locol, as an enterprise, demands of any reviewer is a deeper recognition of the restaurant’s context relative to what a critic may be hoping to evaluate, and a more considered approach to how and where a critical perspective should be applied. This is not to say that Locol shouldn’t be rigorously assessed on how well it is serving the communities that it is operating in, but maybe, to put it another way, some restaurants aren’t meant to be assessed by some critics, even ones considered populist heroes.

Can't get enough of Eater? Sign up for our newsletter.

Sign Up for Dining In, the New Eater at Home Newsletter

The Move

The Best Way to Eat Ice Cream When It’s Cold Out Is a Stout Float

Eater at Home

In ‘Joys of Jell-O,’ There’s Nothing You Can’t Do With Colored Gelatin